West is West Interview Special with Leslee Udwin

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Producer on the journey from East to West

PRODUCER Leslee Udwin returns to the big screen this month with ‘West is West’ – the eagerly anticipated sequel to her 1999 smash hit ‘East is East’. Here she reveals why is took so long for ‘West is West’ to happen, and how plans are already in place for a trilogy.

 

Leslee why did it take so long to make the sequel to East is East?

‘West is West’ is just not a ‘cynical sequel’ which follows swift on the heels of a successful first film, — it’s a stand-alone film from the heart of the brilliant writer Ayub Khan Din, which happens also to be a sequel, in that it chronicles the continuing journey of the Khan family five years on. The film emerged with the love and the nurturing, and also the time, which all really heartfelt films demand. And it took that long, quite simply.

When Ayub and I were working on the development of the screenplay of ‘East is East’, I learned of course, much more about the story of his family than was covered in the confines of the structure of ‘East is East’. And it always seemed to me that there was a trilogy of films to be made about the Khan family.

At the time, though, the prospect of just making one feature film (it was both Ayub’s and my very first feature) was daunting enough and so there was no temptation to probe further than the ‘East is East story’. It would have been obvious to anyone, however, who knew that Ayub was taken as a young boy to Pakistan, to meet his ‘other mummy’ and ‘other family’, that this in itself was a film that simply had to be made at a later date.

It took time (some years in fact) for me to persuade Ayub to write it. ‘East is East’ had enjoyed so much success and was so cherished by audiences worldwide, that it must have been quite a daunting prospect for Ayub to write its sequel. Let’s face it, sequels are usually (or often, at the very least), disappointing when compared to the original film or book.

And I applaud his courage in deciding finally to do it. For my own part, I believe this sequel is the exception that proves the rule; that it is a more profound, more mature, and more satisfying film than ‘East is East’. Of course I hope with all my heart that the audiences, who should be the true judges of this, will agree.

 

Leslee you talk about there being a ‘trilogy of films to be made about the Khan family’ – is this a hint to the possibility of a third instalment?

The third part of the trilogy: Ayub and I have commenced discussions about it. I cannot say when it’ll be ready to shoot, but a minimum of 2 years is the best guess I can make. The fact is it will, like ‘West is West’ did, take as long as it organically needs to.

 

How do you see ‘West is West’?

‘West is West’ holds a mirror up to – it looks at the world George Khan left behind 30 years before, when he came and settled in Britain and took another wife and made another family and life for himself. And finally, it brings the two separate worlds together with the understanding and generosity of spirit that I would wish for the increasingly divided world we live in.

I am even more in love with ‘West is West’ than I was with ‘East is East’. For me it’s as funny, as distinctive, as original as the first film, but it’s also deeper, more layered, and at least as relevant and universal, if not more so in that it deals so fundamentally with regret and repentance of past mistakes – common to us all.

It’s the coming of age of a boy of 15, and a grown man of 60. Both have to learn the same lesson: and this, for me, is the heartbeat of the film – that you cannot have one foot in one country, and another foot in another. You cannot be in one place and behave as though you’re in another. You cannot separate both halves of yourself – where you come from, and where you are. You do have to decide where it is you want to be, embrace who you are and preserve your distinctiveness without being rigid and denying the diversity of life and custom around you.

It makes us laugh and it makes us weep, and contains the message of tolerance and all-embracing warmth that should be the way for all people in all countries.

 

It’s so often the case that sequels tend to be measured against their predecessor –was it difficult to make ‘West is West’ a completely separate film from ‘East is East’?

Ayub and I believed that the sequel could not, and must not, repeat nor aspire to hark back to its predecessor ‘East is East’. Five whole years have passed in story time, and while our core characters remain, they have all grown and changed as we all do. So we were intent on moving the story assuredly forward into new and different realms: and this of course has been substantially helped by the completely different physical and visual landscape of rural Pakistan.

What the sequel has in common with ‘East is East’ is the anarchic, and eccentrically dysfunctional energy of some of the core characters [George, Ella, Sajid, Maneer, Tariq, Auntie Annie]. But we also meet (for most of the film’s screen time) new characters —George’s ‘other’ family in rural Pakistan. ‘West is West’ also shares the same sensibilities as the first film: that unique blend of bold comedy with heart-wrenching, real and deep emotional personal crises, often occupying the same frame.

And it also has the same resonance, heart and spirit, dealing as it does with the small-scale struggles of ordinary people caught in the trenches of everyday cultural warfare and their search for identity.

 

How hard was it getting the East is East cast back on board?

There was no way we could or would have made the film if Linda Bassett and Om Puri had been unavailable, and to a large extent we had to bank on the fact that when they read the script they would want to do it and would keep themselves available in the way that independent production demands they do, on faith and goodwill and without any guarantees.

There were some terrifying beats along the way of our development when we thought we might have worked on the script for 2 years in vain, but they did it in the end and I am so indebted and grateful to them that they did. It is a mark of and tribute to their love of the characters and the material.

Our riches were complete when Emil Marwa and Lesley Nicol and Jimi Mistry agreed to come back. In  Jimi’s case, incredibly generously, knowing that his part was a supporting one in the sequel. That’s the joy and the strength of family bonds!

 

Tell us about your casting of Aqib Khan – why him?

Aqib Khan is born and based in Bradford, UK. His parents are both Pakistani. He is as close to the real thing as I could have wished for.

As with the search for the younger Sajid in ‘East is East’, I started early and saw hundreds of boys in Manchester, where the film is set, and where the accent would be a natural one (it would be enough of as struggle for a young inevitably inexperienced actor to manage the challenge of a leading role without having to concentrate on the accent as well!).

We approached schools and sent a character brief to their drama or English teachers, and they recommended pupils who fitted the brief and whom they considered to be talented and interested. We also had some open call auditions which we advertised locally. After seeing some 200 kids in Manchester, we found two very strong candidates and might have stopped there, but something prompted us to have one last go in Leeds, a major city further north, just in case we could do even better. After all, this kid pretty much has to carry much of the film, and has to weigh in against Om Puri, one of the world’s greatest actors!

The very, very last boy to be auditioned in this extended casting session was Aqib. I cannot begin to describe my wonderment and pulse rate when I first saw him. His charisma, energy, intelligence and beauty were simply mesmerizing. And as an added miracle, he looked exactly like the young Sajid from ‘East is East’, only 5 years older.

This boy is a natural-born actor. His instincts are impeccable; he is utterly captivating, the camera loves him and he will have a major film career.

 

Leslee in what way will audiences be able to relate to ‘West is West’?

There are a lot of people who understand what it means to come back home and rediscover roots, and to trace the fact that in this process of leaving and coming back, you also become a bit of both. This is something very real to us all today. Almost everyone of us is a hybrid, in that sense. So you cannot help but recognise the fact that `Oh My God! That story is about me.’

Essentially, Ayub and I wanted to make a film that will not just entertain, but fundamentally affect people. Although the story unfolds in a particular time and place, it resonates with universal themes: centrally, the complexities of family dynamics and personal responsibility in relation to that. I would hope that by not judging its characters, by refusing to smooth over the difficulties inherent in familial relationships, ‘West is West’ stays true to the contradictions and intricacies that exist in all families. Ultimately, our characters are not good nor evil, just believably human, like all of us.

 

 

West is West is released across the UK on 25th February 2011

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